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Slain Student’s Past Off-Limits

Times Staff Writer

The sexual history of Valerie Zavala, a popular 19-year-old Fillmore woman who was killed early last year, cannot be introduced as evidence in the upcoming murder and attempted rape trial of her alleged attacker, a judge ruled Thursday.

However, Ventura County Superior Court Judge Rebecca S. Riley said the attorney for 18-year-old defendant Samuel Puebla could make the request again if prosecutors raised information about Zavala’s character at trial.

“They [prosecutors] don’t have to open the door, but if they do I get to walk through it,” defense attorney Steve Meister argued in defense of his request during a hearing that was held to handle several motions and set a trial date.

Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Maeve Fox countered that Meister’s request was only an attempt to smear the character of Zavala, who was a sophomore at San Jose State University.

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Puebla, a Fillmore High School senior at the time of the slaying, has been charged with murdering Zavala after the two left a New Year’s Eve party in Fillmore the night of Dec. 31, 2002. He also has been charged with attempted rape.

Zavala had volunteered to drive Puebla and a girlfriend home from the party in the girlfriend’s car. After dropping off the girlfriend, Zavala disappeared. Both attorneys acknowledged in court Thursday that she was legally drunk and planning to go to her boyfriend’s house after dropping off Puebla.

Her partially clothed body was found the next day, stuffed in a concrete drainage pipe under South Mountain Road between Santa Paula and Fillmore. Her death was caused by suffocation, and she had been struck in the head with a heavy object.

The sexual history information could be important because Puebla, in an interview with detectives after Zavala’s death, denied killing her but said they had had consensual sex. A conviction on the attempted rape charge on top of a murder conviction would make Puebla eligible for life in prison without the possibility of parole.

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During a grand jury meeting last summer in which Puebla was indicted, prosecutors discussed Puebla’s statement to detectives and argued that consensual sex was “nonsense” because that was something Zavala would not have agreed to, Meister said in court.

“They [prosecutors] are making an assumption about her character and I have a right to say, ‘Yes, she would have done it,’ ” Meister said in an interview outside of court.

The Los Angeles-based defense attorney wouldn’t elaborate on what kind of evidence he had of Zavala’s prior sexual history but said he considered the judge’s denial of his motion a victory because it forces prosecutors to reconsider whether they should introduce Puebla’s statement at trial.

Fox said in court that she had not decided whether to use the statement at trial, but she was adamant that the defendant had lied to authorities.

In a bizarre twist to the case, Riley postponed a ruling on a prosecution motion to admit evidence of Puebla’s alleged history of stealing women’s panties. The alleged thefts, Fox said, show a preponderance by him to prey on women.

During a search of his Fillmore house a year ago, authorities found several pairs of women’s underwear and bathing suits stuffed under his mattress, in his bedroom closet and in the family’s garage.

Fox said authorities then conducted an “underwear lineup” in which several women were asked to look at the evidence to see if any of it was theirs. Two women identified stolen underwear, including one whose home Puebla admitted breaking in to, Fox said.

Meister strenuously opposed Fox’s motion, saying the underwear thefts had nothing to do with his client’s murder case.

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“How do you get from [panty theft] to rape and murder?” Meister asked the court. “It’s simply evidence to dirty up my client. It’s salacious.”

Meister told the judge that if she granted Fox’s motion to allow the underwear evidence, his client’s chances for an acquittal would be destroyed. “We might as well fry him up and serve him with chips,” he said.

Trial has been set for May 3. In addition to criminal charges, Puebla and his parents are the subject of a wrongful death civil lawsuit recently filed by Zavala’s mother.


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